Top 10 Velvet Underground Songs That Deserve a Revisit

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

The Velvet Underground is one of those bands that was somewhat ignored while in their heyday but have gone on to be deeply influential as time has passed. Fronted by Lou Reed, the group delivered four landmark albums that earned Reed the handle, “Godfather of Punk.”

We’re highlighting the best tracks from the group’s short, yet iconic, run. Dust off your leather jacket, bust out those Doc Martens from back in the day and revisit the Velvet Underground with the songs below.

1. “The Gift”

Mixed in stereo, “The Gift” features a deadpan recitation from John Cale in one ear while a winding instrumental plays in the other. The short story, written by Reed in college, follows a teenager, Waldo Jeffers, amid a long-distance relationship. He begins to become paranoid at the space between himself and his girlfriend, Marsha Bronson, and hatches a plan to mail himself over to her. It’s just the kind of off-kilter, experimental diddy that makes this group so special.

2. “After Hours'”

“After Hours” closes their self-titled album on a tender note. Maureen Tucker takes on vocal duties for this song, on top of a simple acoustic guitar melody. While the majority of the album keeps things dark, “After Hours” is a moment of welcomed levity on the sonic front. In the lyrical one, however, Tucker sings about having to face the day, singing, Dark party bars, shiny Cadillac cars / And the people on subways and trains / Looking gray in the rain as they stand disarrayed / Oh, but people look well in the dark.

3. “White Light / White Heat”

“White Light / White Heat” opens with a bang and keeps on truckin’ for the duration—which tracks for a song about being on meth. Steeped in hazy distortion underneath a wild rattling off from Reed, listening to this one feels like being hit with a wall of sound—in the best way possible.

4. “Pale Blue Eyes”

Though you’d sooner find someone describing Reed’s lyrics as caustic than you would yearning, in “Pale Blue Eyes” he is far more the latter as he sings about desperately trying to make a relationship work. Written for his girlfriend, Shelley Albin, Reed sings, Thought of you as my mountain top Thought of you as my peak / Thought of you as everything / I’ve had but couldn’t keep.

5. “Rock & Roll”

With largely only Reed left to steer the ship, The Velvet Underground’s fourth album was a shade lighter than their prior material, veering toward something folky. “Rock & Roll” is in the vein of classic ’70s soft rock and was a staple at Reed’s live shows throughout the era.

6. “Sweet Jane”

From the same album, “Sweet Jane” is perhaps the most radio-friendly song ever recorded by the group. It is subsequently one of their most recognizable tunes. Like a lot of Reed’s songs, in “Sweet Jane” he tells the story of two everyday kinds of people. He sings, Some people, they like to go out dancin’ / And other peoples, they have to work, just watch me now / And there’s even some evil mothers / Well, they’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt.

7. “Venus in Furs”

In “Venus in Furs,” Reed takes on sexual masochism in a way few of his peers were bold enough to do in 1967. He opens up about sexual fantasies singing, Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather / Shiny leather in the dark / Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you / Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart.

8. “All Tomorrow’s Parties”

Reportedly Andy Warhol’s favorite Velvet Underground song, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” features the austere contralto of Nico. The lyrics are a vignette of The Factory parties and the free-spirited artists that would be in attendance – which is probably why Warhol is so partial to it.

9. “Heroin”

Because Reed loved to take on sticky subjects, in “Heroin” he describes the effect of the drug. In an interview with Uncut, John Cale said of the song, “I don’t know if it’s about a specific person, more likely an amalgamation, but it’s a beautiful portrayal of someone at their wits’ end.” Reed sings, When I’m closin’ in on death / You can’t help me, not you guys / Or all you sweet girls with all your sweet talk / You can all go take a walk.

10. “I’m Waiting for the Man”

Circling back to heroin, “I’m Waiting for the Man” describes the experience of meeting up with a drug dealer in New York City – specifically buying $26 worth of heroin near the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street. “I’m Waiting The Man” begins the drug motif found across the album. It also remains one of the group’s most iconic offerings.

Photo: Cover of ‘The Velvet Undergound’ album, 1969.

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